Russian politicians meet with Assad in Syria as OPCW probe gets set to start

Visiting Russian politicians shared Syrian President Assad’s view that the recent airstrikes had been an act of aggression. Chemical weapons investigators are set to begin probing the alleged gas attacks in Douma.
Russian politicians met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday, one day after joint airstrikes by the US, UK and France targeted centers related to suspected chemical weapons use by the Syrian government. Russia, an ally of Assad, condemned the strikes.

Assad praised the Soviet-era air defense system that Syria had reportedly used to shoot down around 70 of the 100 missiles fired during the strikes, Russian news agencies said. He also described the airstrikes as an act of Western aggression, a view which the visiting lawmakers shared.

“From the point of view of the president, this was aggression and we share this position,” Russian lawmaker Sergei Zheleznyak said after his meeting with Assad, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.

Read more: Will Syria’s Assad get the message? Ask Russia and Iran, say former US officials

The visiting Russians described Assad as being in a “good mood.” The Syrian president also reportedly accepted an invitation to visit Siberia, though it was not clear when the visit would take place.

On Saturday, a draft resolution brought by Russia before the UN Security Council condemning the air attacks failed to pass.

OPCW work in Douma gets underway

The politicians’ visit came as the Agence France-Presse news agency reported that inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were set to start their fact-finding mission to determine whether the chemical weapons chlorine and sarin gas had been used against civilians in an April 7 attack in the town of Douma.
The investigators had arrived Saturday, shortly after the airstrikes had taken place. Russia and fellow pro-Syrian government ally Iran slammed the US-led airstrikes for taking place before the OPCW could conduct its probe.

Read more: What does the chemical weapons watchdog OPCW do?

Arab League summit to discuss Syria

While Assad played host to the visiting Russian lawmakers, other leaders of Arab states gathered in Saudi Arabia on Sunday for the annual Arab League summit, which had been postponed from last month due to the Egyptian election.
Some 17 Arab heads of state were expected to attend Sunday’s meeting in Dhahran. Assad has not taken part in the summit since 2011, when the 22-member organization suspended his membership.

Qatar’s delegation will be headed up by Doha’s permanent representative to the Arab League, rather than a senior official of the state’s emir — a sign that the regional tensions between the country and some of its Arab neighbors remain high.

Expected key subjects of conversation at the summit include perceived Iranian meddling in Arab affairs, such as in the civil war in Yemen and in supporting Shiite fights in Iraq.

The weekend’s airstrikes in Syria and the country’s seven-year-long civil war were also expected to be discussed. While Saudi Arabia backed the strikes, Arab League members Lebanon and Morocco denounced them.

In addition, the summit is the first to take place since US President Donald Trump announced his plans to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a decision roundly criticized by Arab states and their inhabitants.

Strikes bring British political turmoil, papal peace call

Meanwhile, the airstrikes on Syria have roiled internal politics in one of the striking nations, the United Kingdom.

Opposition politician and Labour Party head Jeremy Corbyn accused Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May of carrying out the airstrikes without the necessary legal basis.
“I say to the foreign secretary, I say to the prime minister, where is the legal basis for this?” Corbyn said. “The legal basis … would have to be self defense or the authority of the UN Security Council. The humanitarian intervention is a legally debatable concept at the present time,” he said in a TV interview with the BBC. He also called for a “war powers act” that would force the British government to seek parliamentary approval for future military action.

There is currently no legal requirement for the British government to seek parliamentary approval before committing troops to action.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson defended the government’s decision to join the US and France in the airstrikes in Syria, arguing that lawmakers’ approval was not sought due to the speed and the efficiency of the operation.
“Obviously our prime consideration has to be the safety of our serving men and women and of course the effectiveness and speed of the operation. And there is plenty of precedent for getting it done in this way,” Johnson said in an interview with CNN, according to Reuters.

In a separate interview with the BBC, the foreign secretary said Britain and its allies “would study what the options were” should there be another chemical attack by Assad.

Also on Sunday, Pope Francis used his weekly address in St. Peter’s Square to express his deep concern over the failure of world leaders to come up with a plan to end the violence in Syria.

“I appeal again to all the political leaders, so that justice and peace prevail,” he told listeners gathered at the Vatican.

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